Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Richmond Daily Dispatch, December 24, 1860: The Causes of Secession

It seems that every day we are bombarded with on-line comments responding to op-eds and blog posts about South Carolina's secession and the root causes of the decision of that state to leave the Union.  Some write to deny that slavery had anything to do with the adoption of the Ordinance of Secession on December 20, 1860, and they insist that states' rights was the true cause. did the press in Richmond, Virginia report on South Carolina's decision?  Under the heading "The causes of South Carolina's Secession," the Richmond Daily Dispatch for December 24, 1860 ran a copy of the "declaration of causes which justify the secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union, as reported by the committee to prepare an address to the people of the Southern States."  And, what does this declaration say? As many are no doubt familiar, this document includes numerous references to the threat posed to the institution of slavery by the Northern states and the election of Lincoln. 

For example:
The ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself made destructive by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States assumed the right of deciding on the propriety of our domestic institutions. They denied the rights of property established in fifteen States and recognized by the Constitution. They have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; have permitted an open establishment of societies, whose avowal and object are to disturb the peace and prosperity of the citizens of other States; they have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes, and those who remain give been incited by emissaries, by books and pictures to servile insurrection.
A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all States North of that live have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. In the formation of the federal government each State was recognized as an equal; the right of property in slaves was recognized by giving all free persons distinct political rights; by giving them the right to represent, and burthening them with direct taxes for three-fifths of their slaves; by authorizing the importation of slaves for twenty years, and by stipulating for the rendition of fugitives from labor. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common government, because it is declared that a government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free, and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. 

Headline from the Charleston Mercury, December 20, 1860 (courtesy of the Library of Congress)

It looks like many Virginians, or at least the readers of this paper, would have damn well known what motivated South Carolina's decision to secede in December 1860. This makes it all the more ironic when modern audiences claim to speak for their ancestors and allege that secession was not really about slavery.  However, for residents of the Commonwealth 150 years ago, the truth was there for all to see, and the truth could not be denied. The perceived threat to slavery was an inseparable part of what led to South Carolina's secession.

Addendum, December 22:
One of the best articles I have seen on the causes of South Carolina's decision to secede is "States' Rights, but to What?" by Paul Finkelman on the New York Times Disunion blog.  This analysis hits it right on the money.


Comatus said...

So why didn't the North abolish slavery as soon as those tewwible, tewwible Southerners stopped showing up in the US House and Senate?

Ron Baumgarten said...

I guess South Carolina didn't have as much to worry about as it thought....

Seriously, the idea of pushing through abolition at a time when the country was breaking apart would not have made much sense, nor were all Northerners of a like mind about what to do about the "peculiar institution."